COMMENTS: Overkill

An exhaustive week of coverage of the campus killings at Virginia Polytechnic Institute comes to a close. Gradually the massacre is receding from prominence: today's three-network total of 24 minutes of coverage follows previous daily totals of 26, 38, 54 and 62. There is no excuse for this excess. The week's grand total of 204 minutes of coverage is only the fourth occasion since the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, that the networks' Story of the Week exceeded 200 minutes. The other three concerned the flooding of New Orleans (263 min and 213 min) and the invasion of Iraq (204 min). How ridiculous is that?

The week was scheduled to come to a ceremonial end with organized simultaneous national noontime mourning. Those observances led each newscast, but they were somewhat upstaged by one last news development. The sister of the suicidal killer issued a statement of apology on behalf of her family. Sun-Kyung Cho released it in written form via the Associated Press, in contrast to her brother's florid multimedia presentation that went to NBC News. CBS' Katie Couric read extended extracts: "We are humbled by this darkness. We feel hopeless, helpless and lost." The sister confessed that she feels like "I did not know this person." She called her brother "quiet and reserved," someone who "struggled to fit in."

Both ABC and CBS were impressed by the resilience of the spirit of the Hokies, the student body's nickname for itself. CBS' Sharyn Alfonsi observed that "this community is all maroon and orange" as its baseball team started playing and its marching band kept playing. ABC named all the students its Person of the Week for refusing to let what happened "define or destroy their school," as Charles Gibson put it. He praised the student newspaper Collegiate Times. He admired the students' solidarity: "Everyone grieved together." He got a kick out of campus fashion sense: "Every student on campus, it seemed, was wearing a sweatshirt. Tech this. Tech that."

As stirring as those tributes are, they overlooked the fact that the student body was not attacked by an outsider. The mentally-ill gunman was a Hokie, too. ABC's David Kerley recounted the "intense ongoing discussion" about Seung-Hui Cho's odd behavior in the university's English department, but when professors contacted the administration, they were "given no warnings about his mental health problems or run-ins with police." Andy Cook, Cho's onetime roommate, told NBC's Tom Costello that he was "quiet and withdrawn" back in 2005: "I would never have been scared of Seung." Costello characterized the mood on campus: "Why, with so many clues, did they not see this coming?"

On a trivial note, the sister's apology cleared up once and for all, how to name the gunman. She goes western-style with her family name last. NBC, until today, had persisted with the Korean order, identifying the 23-year-old killer student as Cho Seung-Hui. Finally Costello switched to Seung-Hui Cho in his introduction to his report--although the news division's change must have come late. In Costello's pre-taped portion Cho still came first.


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